Category Archives: Journal Article Reviews

Scholarly Article Review: “Why Japan Surrendered”

Scholarly Article Review
Robert A. Pape
“Why Japan Surrendered”
International Security; Published by the MIT Press
Volume 18, No. 2 | Autumn 1993 | p. 154-201
JSTOR stable URL:

“Why Japan Surrendered”, written by University of Chicago professor Robert Pape, explores the theories behind Japan’s ultimate surrender of the Second World War on the 15th of August 1945. In his article, Pape examines these prevailing schools of thought, and based on the available evidence his analysis seeks to dispel the popular theories which include: the Allied strategic bombing campaign of Japan (with conventional, non-nuclear bombs), the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet Union’s late entry into the war against Japan.

Pape’s thesis asks the question “why did Japan capitulate before invasion and decisive defeat of her home army?”[1] This question is important in the development of his hypothesis. Pape answers the question:

Altogether, this means that the U.S. coercive strategies that were decisive in Japan’s decision to surrender were interdiction and invasion, not the Schelling or Douhet bombing strategies. Japanese leaders made their decision based not on risks or costs to civilians but rather on the vulnerability of Japan’s home islands to an impending American invasion. Only as Japanese leaders came to doubt that their strategy for defending the homeland would succeed, did they choose surrender prior to invasion over the costs of continuing the war.[2]

Alternative explanations are investigated by Pape: The atomic bomb, conventional fire-bombing of Japanese cities, the emperor’s intervention to demand that the government make peace and reduction in American demands to permit Japan to retain the Imperial institution. Pape dispels these as less-than-valid.[3]

Pape’s analysis contends: First, that the number of deaths attributed to conventional strategic bombing was greater than those from the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – was this result a reason for Emperor Hirohito’s surrender speech? Not according to Pape: “Strategic air power is capable of inflicting wide- spread terror and death on civilian societies, such terror bombing is not effective in coercing governments to abandon highly valued territorial goals.”[4] Secondly, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were dramatic and deadly – was this then the reason for Japan’s surrender? Pape advises that it was not. Finally, as the Soviet Union renounces the anti-aggression agreement with Japan, and invades Manchuria in 1945 – this was not reason enough to bring about Japanese capitulation, according to Pape. Pape’s hypothesis as to the ultimate capitulation by Japan is as follows: “The principal cause of Japan’s surrender  was the ability of the United States to increase the military vulnerability of Japan’s home islands, persuading Japanese leaders that defense of the homeland was highly unlikely to succeed. The key military factor causing this effect was the sea blockade, which crippled Japan’s ability to produce and equip the forces necessary to execute its strategy.”[5]

Pape’s bibliography for “Why Japan Surrendered” is an effective cross-section of journal articles, books and other monographs – all published pre-1993 (Pape’s year of publication), and the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS). Pape advises in his footnotes that the work of Leon Sigal, Fighting to a Finish: the Politics of War Termination in the United States and Japan, 1945, is one of the most important works since the 1960’s.[6] Sigal’s book debunks the myth that US concessions for the continued prominence of Emperor Hirohito existed and contributed to the Japanese decision for surrender. Pape’s citation of journal articles from International Security includes that of Karl Lautenschlager, “The Submarine in Naval Warfare, 1901-2001”. Central to Pape’s thesis is the key role of the Allied naval blockade; this a determining factor towards Japan’s surrender – making Lautenschlager’s work a strong source.[7] Essential to Pape’s thesis is the synthesis of Japan’s wartime economic data. The naval blockade had a dramatic effect on Japan’s ability to maintain their war.  Japan’s Economy in War and Reconstruction by Jerome B. Cohen provides the necessary data to substantiate this component of Pape’s thesis.

The study of coercive strategies of air power is an area of expertise for Pape; and as such, his theory for Japan’s surrender deserves close scrutiny and praise. Currently a political science professor at the University of Chicago, Pape’s first book titled Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War, argues that bombing campaigns do not succeed in bringing a country or its people to surrender. To the contrary, Pape offers, such bombing campaigns unify a population and its government.  Pape succeeds in persuading the reader of his thesis by removing the subjective drama inherent in the previous myths and assumptions. Pape’s achievement in Why Japan Surrendered is noteworthy; significant because he does the “heavy lifting” required to arrive at the conclusion of his thesis. His research blends historical empiricism along with quantitative data. This research assails the short-cut propositions by other historians that defer to the quick-and-easy schools of thought; those which neatly suggest that the “atomic bombings” or the “Soviet invasion” as a reason for Japanese capitulation. These over-simplified explanations, found in many works on the final days of the War in the Pacific, ignore important data and evidence; thus becoming “me too” historical thought. It is this historical thought which Pape challenges – and surpasses. The assertions found in Why Japan Surrendered become a significant contribution to the debate on this issue, if not the altogether the convincing final word.


Pape, Robert. “Why Japan Surrendered,” International Security 18, No. 2 (Autumn 1993): 154-201 [accessed March 11, 2012]

[1] Robert Pape, “Why Japan Surrendered”, International Security 18, No. 2 (Autumn 1993): 154-201 [accessed March 11, 2012] 154.

[2] Ibid., 190.

[3] Ibid.,

[4] Ibid., 199.  

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 156.

[7] Ibid., 158.

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